Evil, Social Security, and Roose vs. Roose
It’s over! I am exhausted. But also excited for a three-day weekend (thank you veterans!) and for the year to come.
Here’s some questions.
Lindamc: Following a trail of Substack breadcrumbs, I read a very interesting take recently: “What American culture lacks most is an adult understanding of what motivates evil.” The writer, Erik Hoel, links this to the cartoonish black-and-white nature of good and bad characters in American entertainment, primarily Disney movies. He contrasts this with the moral complexity on display in the characters in films made by Japan's Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, etc).
I found this fascinating and fairly persuasive even though I've never seen most of the referenced films (and despite really disliking the whole “Karen” meme, which in fairness seems to kind of apply to the sequence of events described in the post).
I'm curious to hear your take on this theory, as a parent and movie guy.
It’s an interesting post, though I have to say I found the connection to the Karen meme to be the least convincing part of it.
The way I would put it, I guess, is that large swathes of American pop culture aimed at children really prepare you for “bad guys” to be a huge problem in the world. And over the past generation, the idea that entertainment products with this kind of childish core (Harry Potter, the MCU, Star Wars) should be at the center of adult pop culture as well has really taken hold. But historically, at least, most really big harms are done by people who have plausible stories to tell and aren’t necessarily extreme outliers in terms of their bad personal characteristics. I always liked the Mr. T Experience song “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” which is sort of a joke about this — a guy who doesn’t get that world-historical political evil and being a bad date are basically unrelated.
My reference point for our mass culture’s failures in this regard wouldn’t be Disney so much as the MCU Thanos saga. The basic idea of an antagonist who is killing a lot of people out of a totally sincere belief that this course of action will lead to a better outcome is kind of deep and sophisticated. But they never really dramatize it. How did Thanos come to this conclusion? What counterarguments did he consider? Who besides Thanos was persuaded by Thanos Thought? Did any Avengers have a moment of doubt that they might be on the wrong side of this? Superficially, Thanos has been given a sophisticated adult movie. But the whole story plays out as if he’s just a “bad guy.”
Marshall: You tweeted recently that the NY Times had instituted a policy of adversarial coverage of the Tech industry. Casey Newton and Kevin Roose took vigorous exception to that on a recent episode of Derek Thompson’s podcast. I’d be interested in your perspective and response.
These are both good journalists, but I was surprised by how controversial this was.
Roose covers tech for the New York Times. On December 27 he wrote a column titled “The 2021 Good Tech Awards” where he explained that “every December, partly to cheer myself up after a year of covering tech’s scandals and shortfalls, I use this column to lift up a handful of tech projects that improved the world during the year.”
I do think this shows that Kelsey Piper’s follow up to my tweet in which she said there is literally a policy against ever running positive tech stories is wrong — Roose sets aside one column per year to do it. But that’s still a striking editorial choice, and I think broadly indicative of the NYT’s approach to these issues over the past five years.
Now a lot of these negative stories are good pieces. And I have written negative things about tech companies. But on balance, I think “tech bros are bad” is a much smaller problem for today’s world than things like “anti-telemedicine regulations that were temporarily lifted during Covid-19 are coming back and preventing tech from helping to solve a big problem” or “bad parking rules make it hard to take full advantage of new transportation technology.” One of the good news narratives that Roose highlighted in that December column was some alt-meat companies. I’ve written that I think investing in alt-meat innovation is underrated by climate philanthropists. Why? Well, I think in part because the media, most of all the NYT, has sent the signal to people that it is un-progressive to be interested in and optimistic about technology.
Ray: Democrats have successfully turned any public discussion of cost-saving reforms to SS into a political non-starter. But the program does seem doomed to accounting insolvency in the next 20 years.
What, if any, reforms should supporters of robust Social Security support? Is the best strategy to fix this to wait for the crisis and assume the GOP will blink, to spend political capital on a reconciliation bill that increases funding, or try and compromise with the GOP on some combination of cuts and new funding?
I just want to flag that I reject the idea that Democrats are the reason we haven’t been able to have a reasonable discussion of Social Security solvency — the issue is that Republicans rule out any approach to deficit reduction that involves any tax increases, and an all-cuts approach is (rightly) a nonstarter for Democrats. Second, the budget reconciliation rules prohibit any changes to Social Security, so that’s not going to be the solution.
In terms of what to do, here are my broad thoughts:
We need to increase taxes. Part of the solvency problem is that growing income inequality has pushed a larger and larger share of national income above the FICA cap and drained the system of money. That needs to be reversed.
We should make the benefits flatter. Social Security has this quasi-insurance design where people who had higher earnings while working receive greater benefits. We should cut benefit growth for people in the top half of the distribution while actually raising benefits for people in the bottom 15 percent or so.
Discourage early retirement. Even though the age at which you can claim full benefits has been bumped up to 67 and rising, most people actually claim benefits at 62, and the “rise in the retirement age” is really just a benefit cut. We should be trying to rework this system to encourage more people to work longer and then collect higher monthly checks for fewer years. Even if that doesn’t save money in a fiscal sense, it’s better for the economy.
But look, this is politics, and members need to work out the details in a negotiation. I think Democrats have held the line that fixes should be fixes and not a sleight of hand privatization, and also that we need a balanced approach that includes revenue. I agree with both of those things. Within those broad parameters, potentially anything should be on the table.
Stephen: Would the YIMBY movement do more good trying to align with the ideological left and focusing on making progress in blue big cities/states or in being ideologically heterodox and working anywhere and everywhere?
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